The Swan (And Edgar) Song Of The Department Store


I’ve always loved big department stores. As a kid brought up in Gamages, Bourne & Hollingsworth, Marshall & Snellgrove, Derry & Toms and the rest I loved the order and regimentation of such institutions.

Seeking them out in other countries I fell in love with New York’s Bloomingdales, with its platoons of knowledgeable old ladies. In LA’s Fred Segal I asked for a pair of trousers which weren’t in stock. I went back 18 months later and the assistant saw me passing and said, ‘Your pants are in.’

In Tokyo I’ve watched morning meetings between management and floorwalkers which are like motivational prayer groups, and am amazed as staff literally run across the shop floor with their arms stiffly by their sides like riverdancers, so eager are they to serve. In London it’s the opposite, with bored disinterested staff pretending they haven’t seen you, while in Spain’s El Cort Inglés (the English cut, or style) they combine all these ingredients to be a polite, knowledgeable cross between fashion, homewares and gourmet fresh food that makes Wholefoods look like a run-down branch of the Co-Op.

An advertisement for the Swan & Edgar department store at Piccadilly Circus, London, featuring items from the Lace and Blouse Department.

But the grand old departments stores that I grew up with – as seen in episodes of ‘The Avengers’ and in Norman Wisdom’s ‘Trouble In Store’ – were so hierarchical and institutionalised that many failed to adapt to the changing times. The odiously greedy Phillip Green managed to destroy the British Home Stores, DH Evans has gone from Oxford Street, Selfridges now caters solely to rich tasteless Russians and even the beloved John Lewis is suffering.

It’s not just about home deliveries taking over. The department stores are making themselves disposable when they should be indispensable. El Cort Inglés is an essential part of Spanish life. I’ll go in there for a lightbulb and invariably come out with kitchen gadgets. It’s crowded with produce but strangely orderly. The staff are always nearby but never pushy; it’s an enjoyable experience.

In Japan I bought a stereo speaker and the staff brought out their boss to personally thank me for my purchase. This art of being made to feel special can be made unique to the department store. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t become relevant and essential again. It depends on whether the next generation rediscovers the delights of talking to experts about purchases or prefers to click through online. I suspect they’d rather the latter, as it does not involve human contact.

11 comments on “The Swan (And Edgar) Song Of The Department Store”

  1. Polly Dymock says:

    You have brought back some me of my childhood- department stores which were so posh, the customer could feel intimidated, the vacuum driven cash “bullets” which flew across the store, the politeness – was reminded of true service in Japan too by Mexican waves of shop assistants bowing us n and out of their stores….

  2. Patricia says:

    I was recently in Dallas, TX and went into Neiman Marcus. The sales people were so nice and friendly and not pushy. As it was so hot outside, we were offered small bottles of water as we browsed. I bought a small box of Godiva chocolates and the lady put it in pretty tissue and added some cookies since I was from out of town making me feel special. Lovely atmosphere too.

  3. Trace Turner says:

    El Cortes Ingles sounds like BHV Marais in Paris. I recently spent well over an hour wandering in the basement hardware department. The breadth of their products was surprising and enticing.

  4. Wayne Mook says:

    Using shop as showrooms isn’t such a bad thing to do for some products, plus the click & collect has a big advantage over online. Trying to get things delivered from a site can be a real pain if it’s not from royal mail and even then… plus a shop is a big advertisement and online trying to get noticed is harder and harder.

    John Lewis is being run down by the management, the ideals of the partnership are being washed away. The film of John Spedan Lewis has been edited and now things are being outsourced so non partners are dealing with stuff, especially online things, and the e-mails are dealt with in far flung places.


  5. Peter Tromans says:

    What does it take to compete with online retailers? For department stores, great stock, excellent staff, good extras such as restaurants and coffee shops and an online presence that equals Amazon for cost, ease and convenience.

    A bookshop owner told me people visit his shop, search his stock, ask his advice, and thank him very much for his kind assistance before announcing they will purchase the book from Amazon! Running a shop is not easy.

  6. Martin Tolley says:

    Personal service and dedication isn’t dead in all of these. Last year Mrs T bought a new washing machine that has all sorts of things that require levels of computing skills beyond the level of a competent NASA bod. The key issue appeared to be matching the programs to the weight of grubby clothing inserted. After many abortive and expletive prone attempts with the kitchen scales we decided we needed a spring balance type weighing device. The local-ish John Lewis had a digital luggage weighing thing – loop it through the handle of your bags and it will tell you the weight of anything upto a mximum 40 or more kilos. But nothing on-line about the minimum weighing capacity, I visited the store and asked the assistant if he knew. He certainly didn’t, and no one had ever asked him before, so he said – “let’s find out”. He cut the device out of the plastic bubble packaging, got a couple of batteries from a four-pack, fitted them in and we weighed things. It worked fine for the small weights we needed. I went away with a fresh, packaged device, and he gave me the two remaining batteries free – “you might as well have those as well” – and all for less than a tenner.

  7. Denise Treadwell says:

    I loved the old style department stores. They were individual , they didn’t sell all the same merchandise. Nowadays you can go two two different stores and the sell exactly the same stuff, we used to have more choice. ..

  8. Helen Martin says:

    In Canada we had Eatons for over a hundred years and the Eatons catalogue. In western Canada there was also Woodwards and its catalogue that was the support of all rural British Columbia. There was also the Hudsons Bay, which was a little more upscale and founded on fur sales. Eatons is gone, Woodwards went bankrupt and the Bay has been sold several times. (A group of employees went back before 1820 for the name Northern Stores and is running them in the Territories) We have some of the American stores taking their place with boutique shops taking the place of some departments. Woodwards Food Floor was the place to shop for hard to find items and they regularly made up shipments to far flung places as well as providing “the” place to go for the weekly shopping in Vancouver.

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    At the moment the only place I can find walnut whips is M&S, I can find walnut-less whips elsewhere but it’s just not the same.


  10. John Griffin says:

    John Lewis stores vary like mad. Exeter is very poor for service, you are ignored largely, Leicester marginally better, Tamworth quite the opposite with enthusiasts at every turn. I love stores where observant floor staff wait until you seem nonplussed, then arrive with genteel help. Recently we bought a die-cutter in HobbyCraft (Tamworth) and were afforded considerable useful advice on materials, dies and online videos, not all of it to HobbyCraft’s benefit, but to ours. The assistant concerned had cut most of the display items herself BTW.

  11. Richard Baer says:

    Living across the pond and not yet having had the pleasure of visiting your fine country, my only experience with British department stores consists entirely of watching re-runs of “Are You Being Served”. If the attention to customer satisfaction portrayed on this highly entertaining show ( don’t judge me ) are at all reflective of the retail business today in England, then I intend to spend a great many tourist dollars there upon my arrival.

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